San Diego Symphony starts new era with Friday opening of $85 million Rady Shell at Jacobs Park concert venue

The San Diego Symphony's new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park
The San Diego Symphony’s new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is located at downtown’s Embarcadero Marina Park South. It occupies the same site that the symphony hosted its annual Bayside Summer Nights series at from 2004 to 2019.
(Salvatore Villanueva / Tucker Sadler Architects)

Can the outdoor, year-round bayside venue become a cultural landmark and profit-generator to rival the Hollywood Bowl and Sydney Opera House? California’s oldest orchestra is counting on it


When Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs has a sound idea, no matter how challenging it might be, people listen. If his idea is a potential game-changer that takes nearly two decades to reach fruition — and comes with a price tag in the high eight-figures — those challenges can be met.

Starting Friday, people in San Diego and beyond will be able to hear and see the result of Jacobs’ idea that the San Diego Symphony should build and operate a permanent, year-round, outdoor concert venue. Its 13-month delay in opening, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has further heightened anticipation for the 10,000-capacity venue nestled next to San Diego Bay.

If all goes as hoped, the $85-million Rady Shell at Jacobs Park could have an impact that will reverberate — culturally and economically — for decades to come. The state-of-the-art venue, which occupies about a third of downtown’s 10.8-acre Embarcadero Marina Park, marks a bold new chapter for the orchestra, which was founded in 1910 and is the oldest in California.

“Irwin Jacobs has always cared so much about San Diego and what the city should have,” said Rafael Payare, the symphony’s charismatic music director. “Now with our new venue, if the sky is the limit, we want to go beyond it.”

Martha Gilmer, the symphony’s CEO since 2014, heartily concurred.

“Irwin said we should really look at having a permanent venue, and now we do,” she said. “It’s an amazing gift to the people of San Diego.”

That it is, in at least several ways.

The site that houses the new venue and its recently built permanent restrooms and food courts will be open 85 percent of the year as a public park, including the expansive turf lawn in front of the stage.

The park will host free events, including daytime rehearsals by the symphony. Because of pandemic-related health concerns, the orchestra’s 2021 indoor fall season will be held in large part at the new outdoor venue, not at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall downtown.

To ensure regular public access to the park, the symphony is limited to hosting 110 half-day or 55 full-day ticketed events at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Only six of those events can be held at the maximum 10,000-seat capacity.

Most concerts will be set up for an audience of 3,500. That will be the case for this weekend’s opening concerts by the symphony and special guests on Friday, an array of Broadway stars on Saturday, and pop-soul vocal great Gladys Knight on Sunday. Other artists scheduled to perform this month include Smokey Robinson, Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, Police co-founder Stewart Copeland, Ledisi and the Yo-Yo Ma-led Goat Rodeo.

The symphony also spent $3 million to rebuild and upgrade the adjacent basketball courts and outdoor athletic equipment at Embarcadero Marina Park South. It added 34 donor benches, which are illuminated at night and were built around the venue’s perimeter and along the promenade between the venue and the San Diego Convention Center. The symphony will manage year-round staffing and 24/7 security at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

The San Diego Symphony performs at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, July 18, 2021
The San Diego Symphony held a July 18 commissioning event at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park in downtown San Diego. The performance was a prelude to Friday’s gala opening of the new $85 million venue.
(Sandy Huffaker for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A remarkable feat of philanthropy

These are some of the key factors that helped the symphony earn enthusiastic approval to build the bayside venue from the San Diego Port Commission and the California Coastal Commission. The symphony’s lease extends for up to 50 years.

“Getting the port and the commission’s backing was a big turning point. So was getting (lead venue designer) Greg Mueller to come up with something as memorable as the Sydney Opera House or the Hollywood Bowl,” said Jacobs, who provided working capital for construction while pledges from other donors were sought.

In 2002, he and his wife gave a record $100 million endowment to the symphony. Their gift assured the orchestra’s future at Copley Symphony Hall — now known as Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall — and, going forward, at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” Jacobs said of the new venue. “I think this will be a very positive thing for the city of San Diego.”

In a remarkable feat of philanthropy, more than 99 percent of the $85 million budget for Rady Shell at Jacobs Park has come from private funding. Its construction was spearheaded by donations of $15 million from Ernest and Evelyn Rady, $12.5 million from The Conrad Prebys  Foundation, $11 million from Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, and $10 million from Una Davis.

Except for the Radys and the late Prebys, each of these benefactors are on the symphony’s board. The Radys have previously given at least $380 million to Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and at least $135 million to UC San Diego. Until now, however, the symphony has not been a beneficiary of the couple’s largesse.

“I’m a philistine and I don’t have much appreciation for art, probably average,” Ernest Rady said. “But when this opportunity came along, I thought it was so important. I really think this will become an important part of the San Diego landscape.”

Rady is the chairman, president and CEO of American Assets Trust, a publicly traded real estate investment trust. True to his self-effacing character, he downplayed his role in the creation of the eye-popping new concert venue that now bears his name.

The San Diego Symphony at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, July 18, 2021
Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is equipped with two state-of-the-art sound systems, including the first Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system designed for an outdoor stage, rather than an indoor concert hall.
(Sandy Huffaker for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Martha Gilmer’s vision imperative

“My wife’s and my participation is really minor compared to that of Irwin and Joan Jacobs, (longtime symphony board member) Warren Kessler and Martha Gilmer, who is a wonderful human being. This would never have occurred without her vision.”

Rady laughed.

“I like to refer to Warren,” he said, “as ‘my second most expensive friend’!”

Kessler was instrumental in bringing the Radys on board to help underwrite the orchestra’s new venue. A symphony board member since 1982, he chaired the board from 1989 to 1993 and from 2015 to 2018.

“I told Ernest I aspire to be his most expensive friend — I don’t like to be second best,” quipped Kessler, a retired urologist.

“Ernest and Evelyn have not generally given to the arts. I think they recognized the importance of this new venue, not only to benefit the symphony but as a gift to the community.”

The significance of Rady Shell at Jacobs Park cannot be overstated. This holds especially true for an orchestra that, in 1996, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and requested a trustee parcel out the symphony’s assets to its creditors, which included season ticket holders and 79 musicians.

“I remember the joy we used to have at the symphony when we could make payroll every two weeks,” Kessler said.

“In the long run, I feel Rady Shell at Jacobs Park will be tremendously beneficial to the symphony and will bring in new audiences. It will significantly increase the percentage of earned income when one looks at our total budget. And, especially post-COVID, I think there will be tremendous interest in the venue from the San Diego community.”

In addition, Kessler noted, the new venue instantly confers an elite status on the symphony that should also help grow its coffers.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s famed Hollywood Bowl is the only other major year-round outdoor concert venue in the nation that is operated by an orchestra. According to Kessler, research indicates the bowl accounts for 60 percent of the Philharmonic’s annual earned income. The smaller Rady Shell at Jacobs Park could account for 30 percent of the symphony’s annual earned income.

Moreover, the symphony will now save at least $500,000 annually.

That’s how much it cost each year between 2004 and 2019 to set up and take down the temporary outdoor concert venue the orchestra used for its summer concert seasons, along with the rows of port-a-potties that have now been replaced by 66 permanent restrooms. Six of those new restrooms will be open to the public year-round.

The symphony will earn additional income by renting Rady Shell at Jacobs Park for private and corporate events, as well as for performances produced by other promoters.

Comedy star Sebastian Maniscalco‘s Aug. 14 show at the venue will have a capacity of 6,900 and is nearly sold out. It is being produced by Goldenvoice/AEG, which books the 40-year-old Humphreys Concerts by the Bay series and owns a controlling interest in Pechanga Arena San Diego. And the symphony believes it can grow its audience by pairing the orchestra with pop-music artists, including hip-hop mainstay Nas and Police co-founder Stewart Copeland, whose fans may not have heard the symphony in action before.

The long and winding road

The opening of Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is the culmination of a lengthy quest for the symphony, which staged its first outdoor concert in in 1927 at Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park.

In the decades since then, the orchestra has performed its summer seasons in at least eight other outdoor locations around the county. Following Jacobs’ idea for the symphony to build and operate its own outdoor venue — which he proposed nearly 20 years ago — the nonprofit arts organization looked at potential sites everywhere from South Bay to Rancho Santa Fe.

“I never envisioned it would take 18 years!” said Tucker Sadler Architects CEO Greg Mueller, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park’s lead designer.

Like Jacobs and Kessler, he credits former Chicago Symphony administrative veteran Gilmer — who became the symphony’s CEO here in 2014 — for propelling the project from a repeatedly stalled concept into an $85 million reality.

“When Martha came in, she gave us the freedom to get this done and take the steps to transform the temporary summer concert facility at Embarcadero Marina Park into the symphony’s permanent venue,” Mueller said.

“That’s when the team began meeting with the port commissioners and getting everybody’s support for what is now Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. When Martha came in is when I realized this would really happen.”

Dave Snyder, the symphony’s board chairman, agreed.

“I was privileged to be on the search committee that hired Martha,” Snyder said. “And one of the things we told her we wanted to do, as an organizational objective, was to build this new venue.

“I often think about that, because no one told Martha that it couldn’t be done. We’d been trying for a number of years to get momentum and she came in and did it. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and the credit can legitimately go to her.”

Ground was broken for Rady Shell at Jacobs Park in September 2019, with a scheduled opening for July 2020. An enormous undertaking, the venue utilizes approximately 1,600 cubic yards of concrete and 270,000 pounds of steel.

That the majority of what became an extended, nearly 600-day construction period came in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is a credit to the tenacity of Mueller, Gilmer and their respective teams. This holds especially true since the pandemic forced the symphony to curtail the second half of its 2019-20 season and shelve its entire 2020-21 season altogether.

“We were shut down at the park on a Thursday afternoon because of the pandemic. By 8 a.m. the next morning, we were back on site,” Mueller recalled.

“We kept all our crews socially distanced, and masked. The hard part was not being able to meet in person and having to do all the meetings virtually, and there were delays in getting materials, but we kept working.”

The results of that work are now ready to be seen — and heard. And when they are, it will be with the highest possible audio quality.

The extensive L-Acoustics sound system projects to the audience from an array of speakers suspended above the stage and from six carefully angled acoustic towers, three in front of each side of the stage, that are positioned on the turf where the audience sits.

The stage itself is equipped with a Meyer Constellation Acoustic System for the orchestra to hear itself. The first of its kind to be built for an outdoor venue rather than an indoor one, the Constellation enables musicians to experience a degree of sonic quality usually only enjoyed in a top concert hall.

Oscar-winning film score mixer Shawn Murphy, an audio engineering veteran at high-profile outdoor orchestral events, has served as a special consultant to the symphony. The Meyer Constellation Acoustic System at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park uses active acoustics, enabling the symphony musicians on one side of the stage to hear exactly what their counterparts on the other side are playing.

Payare, the symphony’s music director, is almost giddy when he discusses the benefits of the new venue’s flexible yet precisely attuned audio setup.

“I have conducted orchestras at (the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s) Tanglewood, the Hollywood Bowl and some of the world’s other great outdoor venues, and I have never heard sound of such a high quality,” Payare said.

“With the Meyer system we can really hear each other as an orchestra and have the highest artistic level possible. That is the cherry on top of this great ice-cream sundae.

“As a musician, you feel you have the intimacy of being inside a wonderful concert hall. But you are actually at an outdoor venue on San Diego Bay, and that is what is so special and unique about Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.”

Rady Shell at Jacobs Park diagram and aerial photo
Tucker Sadler Architects CEO Greg Mueller, the lead designer of Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, was inspired by a golden ratio nautilus seashell for the design of the $85 million venue’s stage.
(Aerial photo courtesy Salvatore Villanueva / Tucker Sadler Architects)

Inside Rady Shell at Jacobs Park

The design

The name of The Shell, as the new venue is called for short, is more than figurative. Tucker Sadler Architects CEO Greg Mueller, the project’s lead designer, was inspired by a golden ratio nautilus seashell. Images of such a shell were used to devise the Fibonacci-inspired mathematical equation Mueller’s design is based on, as evidenced by the widening concentric oval rings of The Shell’s white fabric canopy.

The fabric

The Australian company Fabritecture made the 33,000 square feet of white poly fabric in which The Shell is wrapped, as well as the rolled steel used in the venue’s structure. It is the same fabric used atop Sails Pavilion at the adjacent San Diego Convention Center.

The stage

The Una Davis Family Stage covers 3,865 square feet and has a rolled-steel frame that weighs three tons. It is 54 feet deep, 57 feet high and 92 feet wide at the front of the stage. By comparison, the temporary stage that the symphony used for its summer concerts at Embarcadero Marina Park South between 2004 and 2019 was 42 feet deep, 36 feet high and 62 feet wide.

The seats

Each cushioned seat at Rady Shell at Jacob Park is 18.25 inches wide and bright tropical red. That color was chosen by Joan Jacobs and Martha Gilmer to provide high contrast with the green turf and with The Shell’s white architecture.

The turf

If the sand-based green synthetic turf at The Shell looks big enough to cover a football field, guess again. “It’s the size of 1½ football fields,” Mueller said.

Sound footing

Rady Shell at Jacobs Park boasts two audio systems, one for the musicians to hear themselves, the other for the audience to hear the musicians.

The Meyer Constellation Acoustic System

The Meyer Constellation Acoustic System that allows the San Diego Symphony’s musician to hear themselves uses 25 UPM-1XP and 22 UPJunior‑XP remotely self-powered loudspeakers, with 12 UMS-1XP remotely self-powered subwoofers that extend the reverberation envelope to the lowest audio registers.

Digital signal processing for driving the system is supplied by an eight-module D‑Mitri digital audio platform. It has two modules dedicated to hosting the patented VRAS variable room acoustic algorithm. Ambient sensing for the regenerative reverberation is provided by 20 Schoeps MK41 microphones with CMC6 preamps. A Soltech system integrator is also part of the setup.

The L’Acoustics sound system

The L’Acoustics system that provides the sound the audience hears at Rady Shell at Jacobs Park is a powerful frontal K2 system with KS21 subwoofers often used for large scale concert tours. It is complemented by six sound towers that use a 7.1 surround design. The custom-designed system uses more than 100 individual loudspeakers that mix five different L-Acoustics loudspeaker models with medium and long throw capabilities. These ensure even coverage throughout the audience, whether concertgoers are near the stage, at the rear of the venue, or seated at points in between. The total weight of the speakers hung from the stage is 7,233 pounds.

Much like The Shell itself, the L’Acoustics sound system is angled away from Coronado, where the symphony has installed offshore decibel measuring equipment to ensure concert volume levels are carefully controlled and residents are not disturbed.

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park opening weekend lineup

Each concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 6: Opening Night and Annual Gala — Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony, with guest artists Ryan “Speedo” Green, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Alisa Weilerstein; hosted by Vivian Scott Chew and directed by Gary Griffin.

Saturday, Aug. 7: “The Best of Broadway,” featuring Megan Hilty, Norm Lewis, Kelli O’Hara and Adrienne Warren, with the San Diego Symphony, conducted by Rob Fisher.

Sunday, Aug. 8: Gladys Knight, with Naturally 7

Where: Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown

Tickets: $45-$250

Phone: (619) 235-0804


In person: Advance tickets are available at the symphony’s box office at 750 B Street, downtown. Tickets will be available at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park box office the day of each concert.

Health guidelines: As of this writing, proof of COVID-19 vaccinations or negative test-results are not required of concertgoers at Rady Shell at Jacobs Parks. However, guidelines could change as state and county health authorities update their health guidelines based on evolving community infection rates and circumstances of vaccinations. Unvaccinated concertgoers are strongly encouraged to wear facial coverings while outside at the venue and are required to wear facial coverings while in the indoor restrooms or the hallways that lead to and from the restrooms.

Reserved parking: $25